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Scope creep is simply a growth in project requirements (at the client’s request) that are beyond the original scope. It sounds innocuous enough, but it’s a killer of both efficiency and profits. This term “creeps” because, if left unchecked, these requests can slow the work down to a crawl and cause missed deadlines.

Consider an engineering firm engaged with a project that is using an accepted scope of work (SOW) as a guideline. The engineer is progressing through the project and uncovers new items to include within the scope. The project still has budget room and the tasks themselves appear straightforward, so the engineer moves forward. Everything is going well until the end of the project approaches, the budget is largely gone, and the client reminds the engineer about components that were in the original SOW that they still want completed. Now the engineer is stuck, and will likely need to work additional unbilled hours to complete the project on time.

Handling change orders are, of course, part of every engineer’s job. The client might change their mind about certain features, or there could be structural problems that need adjustments. The trick is developing the right processes to manage and limit changes in order to protect profit margins. Engineers who habitually allow change requests without a formal process and structure are simply asking for trouble. Even if the change seems inconsequential and will take a minimum of time, it still must be carefully considered regarding its impact on timelines and whether it causes the need for any additional billed hours.

Thankfully, civil and structural engineering firms can greatly reduce the negative impacts of scope creep by adopting the following best practices.

Understand the scope and the dollars — Engineers who do not fully understand the SOW cannot reasonably dictate when change orders are outside of the scope. They must read the SOW a dozen or more times to develop a clear picture of the team’s responsibilities and which requests warrant further billable time. If the client makes an urgent request that puts the engineers on the spot, they need the context from reading the SOW to decide if the change should be accepted and how long it will take.

Engineers must also understand the current budget in real time to provide them with context about change orders. If, for example, a bridge design is 95 percent complete and only at 70 percent of the budget, then there might be some room for additional work. Engineers who want to prevent scope creep must become comfortable talking about dollars with the client at any time. A focus on money does not preclude a friendly relationship between engineer and client; it’s simply the right professional approach.

Force structure into change requests — Engineers who accept change orders without careful review and formal structure essentially have an “open door” policy for scope creep. Structure is essential because it forces clients to consider the time involved in completing the changes and helps them equate those changes with more money.

Ideally, the structured submission process for changes will include contextual information. Why is the client requesting this change? Do they have broader concerns? What issues will be uncovered if the change requires different materials? Asking questions in a formal manner helps to set the client’s expectations and uncovers hidden wishes or issues. Limiting scope creep involves engaging in this type of transparent communication, where the client’s intent is explored more deeply and engineers don’t simply take on changes at face value.

Asking questions can eliminate unnecessary or redundant work and align the client’s goals with the end product. Professional engineers should understand that taking the time to fully understand change orders takes some additional time on the front end, but the payoff is a reduction in costly miscommunications and greater efficiency. Without such processes, the engineers are more likely to form assumptions, and then take on non-billable hours if their assumptions were deemed incorrect (fairly or not) by the client.

Follow the project start and end dates — Civil and structural engineers cannot expect repeat or new client contracts if they consistently miss deadlines. Therefore, they keep a watchful eye on the final deadline and try to avoid any scope changes as that deadline approaches. It’s a simple statement, but meeting deadlines is largely dependent on starting on time. Starting late is a disaster that eliminates the extra time that’s baked into the typical project. This makes scope creep very impactful because any change request compresses the entire plan.

Engineers can better manage time through a cloud-based task management solution that is tied directly to timekeeping. Managers can use such a solution to see which tasks are remaining, the corresponding time involved, and how they relate to the deadline. Armed with this intelligence, they can respond to change orders with confidence, by either accepting them within the current costs and timeline or request additional funds.

Manage time wisely — Incomplete or inaccurate time reports are consistent red flags for engineering team managers. This usually just happens because engineers and other professional services workers want to focus mainly on the work. They do not want to be bothered with time tracking, especially when they’re forced to use outdated time management platforms or to enter time manually via Excel. While the causes are innocuous, doing timekeeping this way can hold firms back.

Engineering firms that move to cloud-based solutions that automate time entry can streamline their work and ensure they’re properly compensated for every billable hour. How does this relate to analytics? An advanced solution that correlates time to tasks improves accuracy and protects profits, and also offers analytics.

For example, engineers can review past projects and see how much time they spent on a certain type of bridge project. They can look at the analytics to spot clients that consistently cause scope creep and then better estimate the time involved with certain types of change requests. This again provides them with context, so they can understand if accepting “change X” in “project timeline Y” will put the entire project in jeopardy.

Steven Burns, FAIA, is chief creative officer at BQE Software (www.bqe.com). He was founder and president of Orange Loft, LLC, developers of ArchiOffice – Office and Project Management software. BQE Software acquired Orange Loft in 2009. Burns earned a Masters of Architecture degree with Distinction in Design, from Harvard University and also co-founded the architectural firm, Burns + Beyerl Architects.